As the saying goes, when you marry someone you marry their family. Many of us laugh this off as one of many stale aphorisms uncles tell us on our wedding day. But, of course, there’s a lot of truth to it. Your partner’s extended family — your in-laws, your brothers and sisters-in-law, your cousins-in-law, and so on and so forth — become a big part of your life. You inherit the good and the bad. And when you have kids? Conflicts naturally emerge. There are just so many areas for disagreements to take place: You want to raise your kids one way; your in-laws did it a bit differently. You don’t want everyone over all the time but your wife loves an open door policy with her family. Now, it takes a village and your extended family will likely provide so much help. Plus, they’re so important to the development of your children. You just need to learn how to handle the frustrations that arise — and how to be a good son-in-law yourself. Here’s what to know.
Address Your Concerns Early
Feel blocked out by your wife’s extended family? It’s a common issue. What should be a relationship suddenly feels like a competition, and any chance at a healthy connection can feel doomed. But by knowing this, you can turn it around before it heads south. Getting your relationship with your in-laws to a healthy place requires knowing (and acknowledging) that all in-law relationships are rooted in competition for your own individual positions of power within the two different families you each have with that lucky person who happens to be your significant other.
“My best advice is to address the fears of being marginalized or excluded or criticized that underlie the problems,” says Dr. Terri Apter, resident scientist and professor at Cambridge University and author of What Do You Want From Me? Learning to Get Along With In-Laws. “You can reassure your in-laws that family connections will continue even as marriage changes kinship patterns. You can show that you value what an in-law brings to the family. You can show you want to learn who they are, and in that way you give the message that you welcome them — that you are not threatened by them.”
In other words? It’s your job to turn competition into collaboration if you don’t want to hate your in-laws.
Always Communicate With Your Spouse
Make sure you and your partner know what the other is feeling at all times when it comes to relationships with extended family. You don’t want to create a situation where there’s a notable rift between the two of you, as this can let someone swoop in and exploit it. “If your in-laws sense a split between you and your partner they will triangulate,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors. “Meaning? They’ll put themselves in the middle and place a wedge between you and your spouse.
Keep Your Cool
If your father-in-law is planted in front of the TV because he has to watch Jeopardy! every night or your mother-in-law insists on telling you everything you’re doing wrong with your kids, it’s easy to want to blow up. But no matter what happens, losing your temper will only create bigger problems. “Always be respectful, courteous, and kind to your in-laws,” Walfish says. “If you are displeased and opt to express it directly, be sure to remain respectful at all times.”
It’s shocking how often one spouse or another can become lax when it comes to things in which they’ll allow their parents or extended family to participate. It’s key to make the expectations clear upfront, including frequencies and the length of visits. Walfish says that it can be beneficial to role play with your partner, creating situations that might arise and coming up with ways to resolve them. “How will you handle it if there is an explosive moment?” she says. “Have a plan in place for handling difficult situations and include a getaway exit plan.”
Examine the Relationship
Dealing with overbearing in-laws? If neither partner can seem to wriggle out of their parents’ control, it’s reflective of their childhood. “If you had a very authoritative relationship with the parent where whatever mom/dad says goes,” says Dr. Dion Metzger a relationships expert and board-certified psychiatrist who’s helped many couples deal with intrusive in-laws. “Sometimes it’s culturally related, sometimes it’s just parenting styles.” In extreme cases, she says, a partner might even discuss big decisions with their parents before talking to their spouse, which, intentionally or not, sends the message that they don’t value their partner’s opinion. So, both partners need to make a concerted effort to examine the relationship and understand how to better approach the dynamic.
Form a United Front
One of the most common extended family conflicts that arise is when someone — grandparents, aunts, and uncles, etc. — criticizes how their grandchild is being raised. But the good news is, since that’s actually an attack on both of you, it should be easier for you to stand up to it. “I almost always see the spouses unite [on this],” says Metzger. “To say ‘You know what mom and dad? This is how we’re doing it.’” This isn’t meant to drive a wedge. Tact is important. But the sentiment remains.
Choose Sides Carefully. Very Carefully
Understand that whichever side you take in a fight involving extended family, you’re going to end up making someone unhappy. Feelings of resentment can build in situations where a partner chooses their parent over their spouse, and, per Metzger, “when those feelings start building, you get into a danger zone where it puts a strain on the marriage. Not only with how you communicate, but sometimes even children may notice.” In the long run, your kids won’t thank you for freezing out grandma.
And, if you do end up taking sides against your wife, try to do so in a way that doesn’t discount her feelings. “I’ve seen with husbands — if their wife has an issue often the reflex is to minimize it,” says Metzger. “But eventually if you’re going to keep brushing it under the rug, it’s going to come out in other ways in terms of anger and resentment.” If she’s raised an issue, it’s because she’s upset about it. And you know that being compassionate was part of the gig when you signed up.
If your wife’s family is driving you nuts, and she either doesn’t notice their bad behavior or just isn’t bothered by it, you have the right to bring it up and ask for change. Metzger’s overall advice is to talk about any issues right away so they don’t fester. Keep the conversation solution-oriented. Bad idea: Shouting about how hard her family sucks. Good idea: “Talk from an angle of trying to improve things and seeing what you can do better in your relationship in terms of communication.”
You can still hit all of your bullet points. You just want to do it in a way that explains how you’re feeling, and what you’d like to see both of you do to work on making it better. Like, say, “I would like to see you ask your mom to stop inviting your ex-boyfriend to family events” or “I would like us to agree that grandpa is cut off from the baby after three Tom Collins’.” Once you have that conversation, be patient while they’re trying to change. Remember: They’ve had this relationship with their parents a lot longer than they’ve had one with you.
Develop — and Maintain — Family Rituals
The fact is, your in-laws spend so much time with you because they want to be with you. So, rather than have them set up shop in your den, it’s a good idea to create some kind of a regular appointment where your family can get together with your in-laws and catch up. Whether it’s a weekly Sunday dinner, a monthly Friday dinner, or something else that fits your schedule, a regular gathering can be a special event and save you future headaches. “Keeping it regular gives each family member something to look forward to and anticipate,” Walfish says. “Make it frequent enough to feel good and not so often that you feel smothered.”
Be of Use
If you’re at your in-laws’ house and it’s not the hour after Thanksgiving when everyone is so stuffed that they just sit around and act like they’re really invested in the Lions game, chances are laying on the couch with your feet up is not a good look. No, you don’t want to be needy and have your in-laws create jobs for you. But, there are probably errands that can be done, plates to be put away, stories that can be told, and games that can be organized. This is to say: you want to play an active, not passive, role when you’re spending time with them. Otherwise, they’ll perceive you as someone who puts in no effort around the house.
Balance Their Traditions
Maybe you and your wife live in a different state than her folks, but her folks are really big we-need-the-family-together-for-the-holidays people. Or maybe your father-in-law is really keen on the whole family being there for his Memorial Day pig roast. And now that you’re a dad, you’d prefer to fire up your own grill or spend a quiet Christmas morning with your kids. How can you navigate these issues without stepping on anyone’s toes? You have to be tactful and considerate. Can you alternate holidays? Maybe having one year at home and then visit her parents’ house the following year? Or would her dad be willing to slide the Father’s Fay BBQ up a day or even a week? If you let them know that observing their traditions is just as important as creating your own, that will go a long way to making the in-law connection even stronger.
Ask For Their Advice
Both mothers and fathers-in-law are fountains of advice, suggestions, and guidance, a lot of it unprompted. It’s easy to tune them out or to even be irritated by the seemingly constant stream of counsel, but a better course of action is to flip the script and actually ask for their opinion. A couple I know recently bought a house that needed a great deal of TLC. The wife’s father had spent years doing handiwork around his own house but hadn’t had a project to keep him busy in a while. The husband called him up and invited him to come over and tackle some of the work with him. Not only did the father appreciate being asked, but working together also ended up creating some invaluable bonding time. These moments are important. They don’t make themselves.
No, you don’t need to send your in-laws one of those jumbo tins of popcorn every month. But you should think of ways to be more generous with your inclusion of them (within reason). If your child has a game, a recital or a school activity, make sure they’re invited. Even if they can’t attend, the simple act of letting them know they’re being thought of will carry a lot of weight. Additionally, find ways to pitch in and give them a hand. If your in-laws live close by, drop in and offer to help with a household task that they have been meaning to get to. If you notice that their lawn is getting a little unruly during a visit, stop by and offer to mow it for them. Random acts of kindness and thoughtfulness build a lot of equity in your relationship.
Make Their Impact Obvious
Most grandparents love to dote on their grandchildren. They send toys. They send outfits. They send other stuff because ‘oh look how cute it is!’ And as your in-laws are human beings, they’ll like to know that their small gestures are recognized. So it’s important, then, to send back a photo of your kid wearing said outfit (even if you hate it) or playing with said toy (even if your kid only looked at it for four minutes and went to do something else). This will make them happy — and, more importantly, give them a steady stream of new photos to show friends, coworkers, and, let’s face it, everyone they come in contact with and immediately flash photos of their adorable grandkids.
Be Good to Your Wife and Children
This may sound obvious — and it is. But the simplest thing you can do to be a great son-in-law is to be a great husband and father. Above all else, most in-laws want to know that their child is happy and healthy and growing in a marriage. So, when you’re around them, be sure to demonstrate how strong your relationship is. A lot of sons-in-law, whether because they don’t want to step on any toes or because they think a visit to the in-laws is a day-off, tend to recede to the background when with their wife’s family. Don’t do that. Be present. Be affectionate. Be helpful. Be encouraging. Be fun. In other words: Be your best self around them. Prove to them that their daughter made the right choice.
Don’t Forget Who These People Really Are
When all is said and done, no matter how nuts they might make you, your in-laws and extended family are not only your spouse’s family, they’re also your children’s. It’s important to keep that in mind and find a way to have them be a part of your lives while still managing to hold on to yours. “They love your kids and need to have a reciprocal warm relationship,” says Walfish. “Be sure to encourage, nurture, and nourish these vital relationships.”
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